Can bees help children learn? Bydales gets gold by going green (post written with the World Wildlife Fund)

September 7, 2010 at 8:00 am 6 comments

Bydales School

Bydales School, which sits right at the edge of the North Sea a few miles from Redcar, has achieved a remarkable transformation since 2005, when it decided to apply for specialist status as a technology college focusing on sustainability.

In that year, only 34% of students achieved five or more A*-C GCSEs. This past year, that number rose to 84%. But although these numbers tell the only story of success that most of us expect to hear, they tell you nothing about what makes Bydales so extraordinary: its whole-school commitment to sustainability, which drives innovative teaching and learning, and grants a sense of common purpose to students and staff alike.

In July, Deputy Head teacher Seana Rice invited five people: Zaria Greenhill and Claire Joules from WWF One Planet Education, eco-educators Karen Watson and John Peatfield, and Alec Patton, from the Innovation Unit – to visit Bydales and take a look at what they’ve achieved, how they can grow and sustain their achievements, and what the rest of us can learn from them.

This is what they have to say about it:[Note: several bloggers refer to ESD, which stands for Education for Sustainable Development]

John Peatfield: ‘Political awareness’ in the widest sense

Coming from three years of working with primary schools on education for sustainable development projects, I had three reasons for being eager to visit Bydales:

  1. Secondary pupils are closer than primary pupils to leading an independent life, joining the world of work, being consumers – I wanted to know what culture of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) will they take on from Bydales into that life
  2. I wanted to see how deep the culture of sustainability is at Bydales – is it superficial or is it profound? Are they actually building a heritage of eco-activism and life choice?
  3. In my experience, hearing about good practice is no substitute for seeing it!!

My conversations with staff and pupils – and observations from wandering the corridors – left me with no doubt that something deep and profound was happening in Bydales. Students who engaged with us really knew about – and cared about – what was going on at their school.

But there was a deeper thread running through Bydales: this was ‘political’ awareness in the widest sense – students were conscious of the positive peer pressure and influence that they could exert on their constituency (other pupils, staff and families), though they recognised that some saw such actions and behaviours as ‘geeky’ and ‘a bit weird’.

However, the biggest obstruction to progress that I observed wasn’t fear of ‘geekiness’, but the school’s commitment to the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), which it committed to  in order to fund construction of its (much-needed) new building. PFI has tied Bydales to a 30-year contract with a company that does not seem particularly committed to the ESD principles that staff and pupils now see as vital for them, their locality, their lives and the planet!!

But the school is managing this, and shifting the expectations of the PFI relationship: in particular, the deep, whole-school commitment to sustainability gave the pupils power, and this was backed up by governors and staff – and there are active developments to make aspects of school meals, recycling, energy use more sustainable through discussions with the contractors. I believe success in this area will reinforce the depth of the Bydales mission, and then we will have more students prepared to challenge and go those extra steps we all need to make – as well as having the chance to learn about politics in action!!

I saw in Bydales a real reflection of the things that I know matter and must come about – to the extent that I have made a commitment to assist them on some new avenues of change and development.

A truly powerful experience.

Claire Joules: Community and Opportunism

As a teacher myself, I was particularly interested to explore Bydales’ pathway to success. I specifically wanted to find out if there were key features which could be applied to other schools – is there a direct route to embed sustainability?

Bydales is a truly inspiring place: the passion, purpose and energy of staff and students permeates the school and provided a powerful feeling of a community working towards a shared vision. Speaking to a group of students was enlightening: they demonstrated a deep understanding of sustainability and showed that they are empowered to make decisions and act on them: at Bydales, distributed leadership extends to the students. In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell said that if you want to change people’s beliefs and behaviour you need to create a community around them where these new beliefs can be practiced, expressed and nurtured. This is exactly what happens at Bydales and the result is highly motivated students with a strong desire for changing the way they live.

Although you could make a long list of all the features of Bydales which could be transferred to other schools, you could become bogged down by trying to repeat successful elements which may only achieve a disjointed effect in another setting. Bill Scott’s recent research ‘Developing the Sustainable School: thinking the issues through’ is an interesting read – it examines the stages a school goes through in its journey towards becoming more sustainable.

We know there is no overall ‘silver bullet’ solution to becoming a successful sustainable school because all schools are specifically related to their individual context. However, Seana attributes their success to being opportunistic, taking advantage of your local community and skills set, getting as many people involved as possible and being flexible. So I believe the key is really to go back to the underlying moral purpose of why we are trying to implement change and create sustainable schools because this will provide us with the rationale which will allow us to explore how to achieve success in our own context.

Alec Patton: The Four Headships of Tony Hobbs

Headteacher Tony Hobbs, who has been Head of Bydales since 1995, divides his time into ‘four headships’, each with a distinctive character. I’m focusing my post on them, because I think they provide an interesting map for transformational change.

First Headship: Turning around a school by focusing on the ‘front of house stuff’
When Tony arrived at Bydales in 1995, it was at a low ebb, shedding both staff and students at an alarming rate.

He decided to transform the school by focusing on what he calls the ‘front of house stuff‘, that is, the school’s relationship to the parents and wider community.

Second Headship: Becoming a Specialist School
In 2005, Bydales became a Specialist Technology college – not because it had a strong technology department (it didn’t), but because most local jobs were in steel and chemical plants.

Tony also decided the school would focus on sustainability – a choice based on his own passions, but also on his recognition that moral purpose is a powerful driver for students. In his words,

children are idealists, naturally keen to protect their world and upset when adults (or kids) damage it.

Once Bydales gained specialist status, they had to appoint someone to lead the transformation – Tony knew this appointment would ‘make it or break it’. He appointed Seana, who is not a scientist, and was not then interested in sustainability – but, he says, ‘she’s creative, she’s a strong leader, and she’s energetic.’

Third Headship: Moving to a new building
Bydales wanted its new building to be as sustainable as possible, and for its built-in technology to be accessible to young people. The school has a wind turbine, hydrogen-cell generator, and ‘spaces for outdoor learning’ including a garden, orchard, and maintained wetland.

In the new building, Bydales switched to vertical tutoring. Seana had introduced this during one of the school’s first ‘sustainability weeks’, putting all the students into mixed-age groups for extended projects, with great success.

Fourth Headship: forming a 5-school trust
Tony explains the decision to become part of a multi-school trust:

We’re in an age in which we need to collaborate – at a global level, and at a local level. So what better way for a school to put this into practice than to make local collaboration a reality?

I have a lot to say about the implications of the ‘four headships, but I’ll save them for the comments.

Zaria Greenhill: Educating about ‘Real Life’

One Bydales teacher highlighted ESD in terms of ‘real life’. In teaching geography and citizenship ESD naturally fell into her curriculum areas and she, like other staff, showed huge passion, knowledge and engagement with ESD.

She saw citizenship as teaching ‘real life’. Indeed, citizenship at Bydales comprises ‘learning to learn’, personal finance and sex and relationships education, as well as sustainability: a good dose of real life learning. Geography, on the other hand, addresses the scientific aspects of sustainability, such as climate change.

Unlike some of the other staff, this teacher was not effortlessly positive and optimistic about learning for sustainabilty at Bydales, which I found quite refreshing. She spoke of the some kids’ difficulty in ‘learning’ the science of sustainability, such as confusing the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect. She made the link with some kids’ apparent defensiveness and resistance to engaging with ‘real life’ sustainability, such as reycling and consumption behaviour: ‘they don’t get it yet’.

This became clearer when she declared that, from her perspective, essential content for a ‘sustainability PGCE’ would be scientific ecological subject knowledge. This was the main gap currently in the average teacher’s toolbox, in her experience, implying that the personal or values change that was the expected norm at the school was achievable through teaching the scientific facts about global and climate crises.

One reason that education is so important in our response to global crises is that it is crucial to valuing, categorising, and interpreting knowledge: we teach our children what it is important to know. The science of climate change and ecological principles are surely fine things to learn and teach, but is Bydales perhaps illustrating that scientific knowledge alone is not what will make us change?

Citizenship, on the other hand, may well be more about how we know: it has the potential to allow for critical questioning of society and expected norms of behaviour, and indeed for questioning knowledge and values.

Before the transformation to DfE, Dcsf’s sustainabilty team had commissioned ‘evidence of the impact of sustainable schools’ which is downloadable here:

I found it highly interesting that in a school as outstanding as Bydales, with such evident energy, focus, positivity and pride, all particularly focussed around their sustainability work, this teacher was not at ease talking about the relationship between sustainability, citizenship and politics. It leads me to the question: when it comes to climate change, global ecological crises and political thinking, what is ‘real life’ about education, and what should education about ‘real life’ be?

Karen Watson: ‘Busy Bees’ at Bydales

‘Inclusive philosophy’ underpins many initiatives at Bydales school and this was quite enlightening for me. Couple this with a whole school approach to ESD, and you have a school worth visiting.

My own beliefs about education are embodied in an ‘Inclusive’ philosophy. But what does this mean, or what does this look like? Definitions of inclusion are widespread and it is very difficult to establish one which really captures what lies at the heart of this. A visit to Bydales reminded me what I believed in, and why I became involved in education many years ago.

No matter what government is in power, educators should base their teachings on well founded principles and a sound pedagogy. This should permeate everything they do. Sadly from my twenty years of experience this is often lost amongst the heavy burden of bureaucracy and demands made by various powers. Many educators have simply ‘lost their way’.

It is well known that schools have a responsibility to provide a broad and balanced curriculum for all pupils. In planning teaching for learning teachers are required to have due regard to the following principles

  • Setting suitable learning challenges
  • Responding to pupils’ diverse learning needs
  • Overcoming potential barriers to learning and assessments for individual groups of pupils.

The inclusion project ’Busy bees at Bydales’ (led by Alison Davison) captures some of this philosophy superbly.

The nurture group in school includes children of many different abilities, and they are the official bee- keepers. Pupils feel empowered, confident, show leadership and demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the life of bees. They have learnt about bees and had hands on experience of working with the bees using specialised equipment and excellent training.

The unique experience at Bydales (not many secondary schools have beehives!) allowed pupils to develop ‘life skills’ as well as being aware of the impact on the planet. The school has plans to develop Bydale bees due to its success and impact on the wider community too – Bydale bees are now visiting gardens in the locality!

Albert Einstein is supposed to have said that ‘if the world’s bees were to perish, humanity would too.’ How many of our pupils perish in the education system if they do not slot neatly into league tables and results? Quality of life is not about league tables and results but engagement with the real world. We must not forget that children have a part to play in society after school. Bydales aspires to put all pupils on the right path for this!

Seana Rice: Reflection matters

I was interested in getting a range of external perspectives on what we are doing at Bydales, trying to establish a true reflection by others of what our practise looks like from the outside. I hoped this would provide objective clarity and a springboard to move forward in the best direction.

We have been busy at Bydales doing all sorts of projects. Sometimes finding the time to stop and reflect to make the next steps in the right direction can be difficult.

The experience really clarified the need for deep thinking time, and the importance of sharing and exploring thoughts and ideas.

There are two mantras that we hear a lot from young people: ‘Bothered????’ and ‘I wouldn’t dare!!!!’

The sustainable schools CARE agenda has helped us to address this, I think we are a school that is bothered and we do dare, in fact we dare to do quite a lot! Since we established a Sustainable School Development Plan in 2007 we have seen an increase in standards and attainment alongside pupils who are confident and understand their responsibilities within a wider context, becoming positive citizens for today and tomorrow. The school is a more cohesive school and we have established stronger links with the local community.

Reflecting on the path we have travelled, here are the things that I think have helped us along our journey:

  • Having a head teacher who has a clear vision that is driven by moral purpose
  • A whole school approach – all aboard the (renewable-energy) bus
  • Harnessing the passionate – identifying key staff and pupils to lead initiatives
  • Being outward-looking –engaging with pupils, staff, parents, governors, local and wider Community
  • Creating opportunities that support staff and link to their personal interests
  • Regular monitoring of objective progress that is linked to the School Development Plan and Performance Management

Our journey so far has not always been a smooth ride, we have our ups and down but I honestly feel the Bydales community are all on the right bus – some may not be sitting in the right seats or facing the right direction but we are all definitely together.

Here’s what I think we need for our journey now:

  • Making reflection a higher priority
  • Exploring John Peatfield’s Sustainability Pupil Award idea, sparked by his conversations with our children
  • Spreading the word and sharing good practise
  • Preparing for new challenges ahead –dealing with new directions and securing the commitment

We’ve posted our observations and reflections here not as a ‘report’, but as the beginning of a discussion about transforming schools and ESD – so let us know your thoughts, whether directly linked to the posts, or tenuous and tangential.

Over to you…

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Charles Leadbeater on Radical Innovation in Education Expensive green events

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. goodthingsltd  |  September 7, 2010 at 8:25 pm

    Thank you for showing us (joe public) your work-in-progress. You are clearly undertaking transformative change which is deeply impressive, but what strikes me is your willingness to show your work by invitation to external experts, and via this post to a much wider audience. This idea of prototyping ideas and consciously opening the process to comment and input is, I think, an example of design-led thinking in educational practice. It takes guts. it also offers rich input for your reflection and I am sure will feed back into iterations of the design for your school as you move forward.

    What also strikes me is that you have shown what can be done – many schools do, as Karen indicates above, act as though incarcerated by bureaucracy. You buck the trend.

    Thanks for the post.

    Reply
    • 2. Seana Rice  |  September 9, 2010 at 7:59 pm

      Being involved with a wider partnership has given us the confidence to share and open to opportunities that have benefited the whole school. I have been honestly surprised how it has all grown and been well supported by pupils and colleagues.

      Reply
  • 3. Martin Said  |  September 10, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    There is clearly some really exciting things happening here, and what interests me is how a focus or common purpose such as ESD can then give rise to a platform for the students’ learning to expand into the wider community.

    How has the link with WWF been used? I guess this adds authenticity to the projects. This is something I am looking to develop in my subject area (Creative Arts) through forming partnerships with the industry in our region, and create “real” audiences for the students’ work.

    Reply
    • 4. Zaria Greenhill  |  September 14, 2010 at 11:11 am

      In answer to your comment: Seana Rice came and spoke at an event we ran to look at widening involvement in the Sustainable School, and we were so impressed by her stories of the school that we organised a group visit. WWF is keen to learn from the school.

      I’m glad you think we add authenticity. We see our position as being able to step back and see the bigger picture: to help connect schools, showcase them and raise awarenss of good practice going on.

      We are also working on systemic change in education, with our multi-stakeholder project One Planet Education, and this visit to Bydales was part of that project. See our url for more information.

      I like your comment about creating a real audience for students’ work. One reason why sustainability tends to engage pupils and enhance learning is that it is clearly and palpably real for them: a subject that links learning with global issues and real life. Bydales illustrates this by taking a strong whole-school approach to sustainability and involving every area of the school with it, making it part of the ‘real’ experience of school for the students. On our visit we were treated to footprint-shaped biscuits cooked from local ingredients in the domestic science class!

      Reply
  • 5. Seana Rice  |  September 10, 2010 at 9:37 pm

    Our approach has definitely been one from a whole school perspective, and this I think has helped give impetus to individual areas to get involved. all our subject areas have links and project to the sustainable school doorways. I have actively sought out funding opportunities to aid project development and this often opens further opportunities for partnership involvement. My subject is Art & Design and we have undertaken a number of real projects including: Community Outdoor Art space with classroom, orchard and sculptures – this space was created by year 10 GCSE pupils working with Coast & Country (Business Partner) (Local Residents and Coast & Country staff). We have also completed a cross curricular project with English creating story books and playground imagination boards for a local feeder primary nursery, created recycled accessories for our fair trade fashion show.
    We are involved with the Climate Change Schools Project which has opened opportunities to work on an Adaptation Challenge with the Environment Agency.

    I think taking the steps to make contact with partners is the first hurdle, in my experience once you make contact the partnership blooms and often leads to more opportunities…. it just takes finding the time to make the first contact.

    The WWF partnership was developed from a One Planet Education day and this partnership is focused on looking at ESD as a group – it is not a partnership focused on a school project with pupils.
    If you are interested I would be happy to chat about all our partnerships and projects

    Reply
  • […] grounds, taking the kids into the woods – which reminded me of the work on sustainability at Bydales […]

    Reply

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